Finding paradise

When I talk with friends back home, I get very much the feeling that they’re saying, “Oh you’re alright, you’re out there”. There’s a notion that because I’m in a tropical country a million miles from home, I haven’t got a care in the world. When, in fact, my problems came with me, and if anything they are more lucid. I am completely alone with nothing but them for company in a strange and unknown land. At home my friends have the comforts and securities of the people and places they understand and love all around them; out here it’s just me and my backpack.

Someone dear dying of cancer; the relationship with someone special that I started not long enough before I left, not knowing where it will go from here; my mum entering her 60s; my nan entering her 90s; the unsatisfying career that I need to change; the insecurities and fears that plague my mind…they’re all still here, no matter what amazing sights I might see and exotic experiences I might have.

I remember reading Alain de Botton’s take on this in his brilliant book, The Art of Travel, that I studied at university. When we imagine paradise, he said, we don’t imagine that our minds will be there too.

A couple of years ago I travelled for three weeks with friends in Costa Rica, leaving at home a boyfriend with whom I knew, deep down – though didn’t admit it – that our six-year relationship was breaking. Giving us some time apart, I thought, would help us. Looking back now, I think I knew the relationship was already over, as during the entire trip, I had an overwhelming foreboding feeling. Sitting on a Caribbean beach for the first time, my heart was heavy with memories of him and I on a tropical shore during the intoxicatingly happy early days of our relationship. At dusk, I felt panicked at the long hours of darkness ahead without him. The deeper into the luscious jungle of the country we travelled, the more I wanted to turn back, to him, to us. Now, when people ask if I liked Costa Rica, I say no. But I know it’s not the country’s fault, it’s just sometimes no amount of palm-fringed beaches, jungle canopy tours and baby sloths can help how you feel inside.

So now I will go back outside into the sun, look up and smile at the mountains surrounding me, wander down a colonial street, eat and drink whatever I want for lunch, whenever I want to take lunch, catch a bus to somewhere else if I fancy, but don’t think for one minute that I don’t have anything to worry about.

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach

My bike on a lonely Costa Rica beach

Life learning

Every so often in my life, I find myself faced with a situation, that really I would rather not be faced with, but in time I find that I’m grateful for it in some way.

As I prepare for this time of my life (indeed I already believe I am having a time of my life, there’s no need to fly 10,000km to achieve that), the timing has coincided with the terminal prognosis of an old boyfriend’s dad. During my six-year relationship with Mark, his dad Bill became like the father I never had. Warm, kind and generous, and always up for a joke, I enjoyed spending time with him and missed him after Mark’s and my relationship ended. Bill since developed cancer that has now returned with full force that means he has been given three to six months to live. I went to see him for what is likely to be the last time just before I flew to Peru.

I found him in the corner bed of a hospital ward, the evening sun filtering through the vertical blinds. I had prepared myself for a change in his appearance, inevitable with such severe cancer and chemotherapy. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was that he would look like a small boy; it was as if I could see exactly what he would have looked like when he was 10 years old. Sitting in bed simply staring into space – the pain so severe he said that he couldn’t even bear to have the TV or radio on. The jolly, jokey man I used to know was no longer visible during my entire visit with him, replaced instead with a man that just seemed to be quietly shouting “Why me?”.

When I got up to leave, I told Bill I’ll see him again soon and slipped my arms round his sweat-soaked back for a long, meaningful hug. He just smiled faintly. I think him and I both know we won’t; but somehow we will.

And all I can do now is never, ever be afraid of anything – a dodgy flight through a mountain valley? Pah! A 12-hour bus journey on a non-existent Bolivian road with hairpin bends? Pah! Being a woman alone in a dark street in a strange city? Pah! I would rather do any of those than be sitting in a hospital bed asking why.

Why parents shouldn’t worry when their offspring head for far-away shores

I think my mum is not alone in trying to suppress her utter horror that I have set off alone to South America. Of our generation of parents, many have not travelled outside of Western countries, so simply cannot visualise nor comprehend what life is like for their son or daughter travelling in anywhere that’s developing.

So when I was sitting in the hostel lounge last night, chatting with young and old people from various nations, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of our parents’ and loved ones’ imagined fears. The traveller trail really is a bubble; it’s very rare you come into contact with any real danger, any more than you would at home. My brother instructed me before I left: “Don’t go getting into any sticky situations”. I explained just as I avoid these at home, I don’t intend to change this policy just because I’m in foreign climes, and start pursuing a life with gun-toting drug barons.

Backpackers have got it easy; we can move between hostels that are microcosms of home, our only real contact with local people being workers in the hostels and cafes, those herding us on and off the buses, and tour guides. There’s really not much chance of getting in to any more trouble than maybe getting ripped off a little.

So rest assured, dear loved ones, we will be back – a little worn after successive 20-hour journeys, a little smelly with a lack of hot showers, and probably quite poor, but we’ll have lots of stories to tell you. And we’ll be all the more grateful for that first cup of tea that only you can make taste so good.

De-backpacking

Now I’m 30 and it’s been eight years since my last proper worldwide backpacking trip, I’m noticing some changes in my approach to travel.

And it’s not just that I need – or desire – more lotions, potions and paraphernalia now; it’s not just that technology has leapt and bounded, demanding that I need to have a laptop, mobile phone, HD video camera, digital camera, tripod, iPod and orthodontic retainers with me… It’s that I just don’t need to follow the well-trodden path anymore. There’s a backpacker flow that occurs the minute you arrive in a hostel on a travellers’ trail. And it’s been hard to resist the current.

It happened to me in Vietnam – somewhere I’d not particularly researched or desired to go, but somehow ended up there during travels in Asia, and spent six weeks slogging the length of the country – without quite knowing why – and not particularly enjoying it.

This time, I vowed to only do what I really want to do; to go to places and do things that I’d always dreamt of. Yet sure enough, within hours of my arrival at HQ Villa Hostel in Lima, I was being told to go on to Huacachina. I admit, maybe I wasn’t being instructed directly, but Huacachina was in the air, the word on everyone’s lips – why, it’s the natural next step after Lima, or is the last place people had been before arriving here.

“Go if you want some sun” advised the Irish girls in my dorm, yet minutes later described how run-down and pointless the place is. Yes, the thought of soaking up some rays after the drizzly cold of Lima’s winter appeals, as does sandboarding – but I intend to do this in the Atacama Desert anyway.

My main aim of visiting Peru is, of course, Cuzco and the ancient sites and beautiful mountains of the Sacred Valley. So why am I now being persuaded to spend my time, money, and more importantly, my energy travelling up the south coast on various lengthy bus journeys inbetween destinations I have no interest in? The Nazca Lines sound boring to me; Arequipa sounds like a lovely city, there are many lovely cities in the world; and the Colca Canyon trek sounds like an absolute nightmare.

One place near Lima does appeal – the Ballestas Islands – apparently mini versions of the Galapagos. I enquired, more to make conversation than anything, at the hostel reception how I would get there, how long to spend there and so on. The British receptionist looked bemused:
“You can go from Huacachina.”
“Ok, but I can go by bus to Pisco and then stay in El Chaco to visit them?”
“Oh, can you? Well you should just go from Huacachina.”
“Hm, well you see I don’t want to go to Huacachina.”
“Oh.” With a look of utter disbelief, and nothing more to say.

I’m going to tramp my own trail.

Photographing the Dead Sea, Jordan. Photo: Mehalah Beckett

Somewhere by the Dead Sea in Jordan, in 2011

Why am I going?

Why am I going?

What is your definition of travel?

What is your definition of a traveller?

Someone asked me the other night.

As a veteran traveller, I always thought the answers to these questions were easy. But upon deeper reflection, I’m not so sure. Or maybe it’s because this time, it’s different. This is not so much about the travelling. This is about making the life I want happen.

Do I want to do the travel cliches? Do I want to traipse round ruins and sites, just because they are ‘must dos’; because everyone else does? And then wonder why I am frustrated and exhausted.

The other week when I was back at my mum’s, I looked at my old photo albums of my travels in Asia. I’ve looked at them many a time before with nostalgic pleasure; this time all I could see behind every picture-postcard photo was the negative elements of travelling alone in a foreign country – the strain of the backpack straps; the sweating from parts of the body I never knew possible (backs of knees anyone?); the never feeling properly clean; the arguments over fares with taxi drivers; the inability to communicate with people properly; the sitting alone in cafes for dinner; the different bed each night. Did I actually enjoy travelling, or is it just something I have to do?

And that’s what I answered to my friend who asked the poignant questions – I think I’m going because I can.

Backpacking on a ferry in Sumatra, Indonesia

Trying not to let my backpacks unbalance me when boarding a ferry during previous travels in Sumatra, Indonesia

The ruination of ruins

Some complain of ruin fatigue. Some spend a week at Angkor Wat with genuine interest in every carving. Some whizz round famous sites just to say they’ve been.
I think I’m apathetic to old stones.

When I went to Cambodia, I had endured what had proved to be one of the most horrendous journeys of my life so far to reach Siem Reap overland from Thailand. I was heading for the legend that is Angkor Wat, in fact my my sole reason for visiting the country. I got the three-day pass for the site as my guidebook by a popular publisher, which normally has the same opinions as me, seemed to strongly suggest that I’d be a criminal to spend anything less than this admiring the ruins. However, after having to stay in the grotty town of Siem Reap for those three days, I heavily regretted it. I could have easily seen all I needed to at Angkor in a day.

Temple ruins of Athens, Greece

Unimpressed in Athens

Then there was my visit to Easter Island as part of a round-the-world ticket that had such a demoralising effect on me, I subsequently cut that whole trip short. Rows of big stone heads in a wind-beaten landscape on the most isolated inhabited island on earth inspired me to nothing more than a severe bout of depression.

Now, before you form an opinion of me as an philistine or an airhead, let me clarify – I love architecture and ancient relics – I spend my weekends going to practically every museum, artist’s house, stately home and castle in the UK, and revolve all my foreign travel around culture and sights rather than beach loungers and pools. But when I think of some of the ruins I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into reaching around the globe, I inevitably end up with a little bit of a flat feeling about them. Maybe we’re just too exposed to the wonders of the world by the mediums of media that real life will never compare anymore.
I hope not.

And now I’m headed to Peru with a key aim, of course, being to visit the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. Will I stand atop a mountain, gazing down over the ruins with a sense of elation, and ecstatically cry “I made it!!”…or will I just feel as momentarily excited as when I see a new Sainsbury’s Local has opened up nearer my house? Watch this space dear reader, watch this space.

Footnote: I would like to mention one big exception – and that is the ruined city of Petra in Jordan that I visited last autumn. It completely exceeded my expectations – I got lots of wonderful surprises there and was utterly stunned. Maybe it doesn’t receive so much media coverage..?